Music in Citizen Activism

The Importance of Music in Citizen Activism

Katie Commerford, December 2018

Being a U.S. Citizen means many different things to various people. One universal understanding of citizenship, however, is that citizens are protected by the Bill of Rights and the constitutional amendments. The First Amendment protects “freedom of speech” and “the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” [1] One area where this protection has blossomed into effective political activism is through music. In the 21st century, it stands true that music can be politically transformative, unify peoples, and generate change. As a result, it should be explored as one of the most rightful modes to freedom of speech and expression.

Throughout history, music has played an important role in political expression. In a positive light, “Historical records are full of examples of songs that laud the achievements of nations, dating all the way back to ancient Egypt.” In this way, music has always been used to unify people and spread news. In regards to political freedom of speech, music has also served as a mode to freely express discontent. In other words, “songwriters have turned to their craft when confronted with social and political unjustness, and give birth to songs that seek to shine a light on the perceived inequities of the day.” [2] As a result, throughout American history, the people have always sought out music as a means of political expression. Some politically charged songs of the past include, “Strange Fruit” by Billie Holiday, “The Times They Are A Changin’” by Bob Dylan, and “Give Peace A Chance” by John Lennon. All of these songs touched on difficult societal topics and brought people together through political charge.

While there remains a plethora of politically charged 21st century music, one early on, straightforward example is “Dear Mr. President” by P!nk. This song, off her “I’m Not Dead” album released December 21, 2006, directly addresses faults of President George W. Bush without once mentioning his name. 2006 was only five years following the September 11th terrorist attacks and three years after the start of the Iraq War. As a result, the context of this song is the middle of George W. Bush’s second presidential term during his controversial policies of War on Terror. [3]

The lyrics begin by asking the president to take a personal walk, which creates the feel of an open letter of emotions. First, P!nk addresses the dilemma of homelessness, “What do you feel when you see all the homeless on the street?” She pushes the president to act. In regards to the Iraq War, she follows up, “How do you dream when a mother has no chance to say goodbye?” Through this, she speaks on the unjust deaths of sons going off to what many viewed as a pointless war. P!nk then directly points at policy of the Bush Administration stating, “How can you say ‘No child is left behind’…they’re all sitting in your cells.” [4] The No Child Left Behind Act was an effort to keep all students up to pace by requiring consistent reading and math testing. [5] However, P!nk uses this song to claim that George W. Bush actually did little to help students while also calling out the jailing of Filipino children.

Her lyrics prove relentless as she goes on to ask, “What kind of father would take his own daughter’s rights away? And what kind of father might hate his own daughter if she were gay?” Both lyrics directly call out Bush for a lack of female rights activism and a neglect in supporting LGBTQ+ rights. Soon after follows one of the most controversial lyrics, “You’ve come a long way from whiskey and cocaine”, where P!nk personally attacks Bush’s previous substance abuse problems. The song continues on with many more lyrics pointing fingers at low minimum wage, bombings in Iraq, and poverty. What makes these attacks most effective is her personal digs such as “How do you sleep at night? How do you walk with your head held high?” [6] Through the constitutional right of freedom of speech, P!nk utilizes the media of music to challenge a U.S. leader and spark public outrage.

The deep meanings of this song resonated with Americans all over. One critic picked up on many main points, “The song criticizes several areas of Bush’s administration and terms in office, including the Iraq War, No Child Left Behind Act, disapproval of equal rights for homosexuals, lack of empathy for poor and middle class citizens, Bush’s strong religious beliefs, and Bush’s drinking and drug usage in college.” The song caused immediate reactions amongst Americans at the time of its release. After a video surfaced of her performing the song at concert, “Dear Mr. President became YouTube’s second most viewed video of the week, with 172,780 hits and hundreds of comments.” [8] The fact that the song addresses intense topics is displayed through the polarized positive and negative reactions she created. This public response over such deep lyrics led this artist to comment, “that it was one of the most important songs she had ever written.” [9] P!nk effectively utilized her freedom of speech through music to challenge the U.S. government and cause public outrage.

Over a decade later, in the summer of 2018, rapper Childish Gambino also exercised his free speech through both intense lyrics and the art of a music video, which now has 429 million Youtube views. His song, “This is America” was inspired by the later 21st century harsh realities of black America. The piece left listeners in both awe and political outrage. The context of this song focuses around the post-2010 heightened awareness of police brutality. In 2012, a young black teen, Trayvon Martin, was shot on his way home by a police officer for looking suspicious in a hooded sweatshirt. Since then, passionate movements, such as Black Lives Matter, have sparked in efforts to bring attention to unjust police brutality in cases like the deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and many more. The main themes of Gambino’s lyrics and music video are those of this brutality.

The video begins with Gambino in an awkward stance casually shooting a blindfolded man. This image actually, “mimics that of the minstrel character Jim Crow, the origin of the term used to describe pre-Civil rights-era segregation laws.” [10] Gambino then dances erratically amongst young black students while chaos ensues in the background. Many believe this portrays how the media focuses on amusing aspects of black culture, such as the “shoot” dance, in order to avoid addressing black violence and oppression. Gambino then strolls in on a church choir, is tossed an assault weapon, and fires a round of shots hitting all 10 singers. This image references the 2015 Charleston church massacre. Each time a gun appears in the video, it is handled carefully with a cloth while the dead are dragged away. This symbolizes the belief that America protects their guns more than their people.

All of this commotion is surrounded mostly by the simple lyric “This is America”, which gets across the blunt message that America is plagued by violence. Other significant lyrics include, “Get your money, black man, get your money” and “Guns in my area…I got the strap..I gotta carry ‘em.” [11] These lyrics portray black Americans as just a pawn in the nation’s brutal game. While the song overflows with strong lyrics such as the constant reminder, “Don’t catch you slippin’ now” one lyric critics often point to is “This is a celly, that’s a tool.” [12] This string pairs with the image of teens recording police violence on their phones to emphasize how phone videos of innocent black deaths have played an important role in sparking political movements such as Black Lives Matter.

Near the close of the video, Gambino dances on cars all from the 1980s and 1990s to symbolize stagnation in socioeconomic mobility. Finally, this heavy video comes to a finish with a close up of Gambino’s crazed face running in the dark referencing the recent movie “Get Out”, which poses black oppression as a contemporary issue. Lastly, to solidify his point, the outro stabs listeners with the lyric, “You just a black man in this world, You just a barcode.” [13] The mode of music greatly aided Childish Gambino’s ability to freely and intricately speak up on the issue of black oppression within the U.S..

In order to draw attention to his political commentary, Gambino released this music video while live hosting the popular show “Saturday Night Live”. As a result, “The video racked up more than 30 million views on YouTube in 48 hours.” [14] All across social media, people analyzed the symbols and passionately agreed or disagreed with Gambino’s critical view of America. Along with the trending responses of the general public, many celebrities took to their social medias to applaud Gambino’s political music. Such praise came from many including Adele, Bruno Mars, Hozier, Jaden Smith and SZA, who even appears in the music video’s end scene. [15] Due to the intensely thought out symbolism and political charge, “This is America” ended up “debuting at the top spot of the Billboard Hot 100.” [16] Childish Gambino exemplifies how the gateway of music, through lyrics, video, and social media, can provide a successful place for one to use the citizenship right of freedom of speech to create important political discussions.

This powerful connection between music and freedom is also displayed through censorship. Why censor music if it is simply harmless fun? In reality, music is anything but harmless. As displayed, music holds great political power. As a result, authoritarian governments often censor or outlaw music in order to have more control over their country’s population. North Korean leaders, for example, have banned both music and the internet. CBS News Reporter, Holly Williams, once joked, “[Music is] also an unlikely weapon against North Korea, where K- pop is reportedly banned. The South Korean military blasts music across the border to let North Koreans know what they’re missing.” On a more serious note, she adds, “Hoping other North Koreans will see the light, this aid group puts flash drives, soap operas, and movies inside bottles of much needed rice, and floats them towards the North.” [17] Music and video media is so powerful that other countries sneak it into North Korea in hopes of spreading freedom.

Unlike in North Korea, freedom of speech is one right American citizens are proud to have. Throughout history, this right has been linked to music, which creates a unique gateway to act creatively and effectively spread political conversations. Artists like P!nk and Childish Gambino are two of the innumerable contemporary American artists who spread powerful lyrics and video images as sparks to ongoing national debates. When music is taken away from the people, their creativity and freedom of expression suffer. Music and political freedom are forever linked.

Notes

[1] U.S. Constitution. Amendment I.
[2] Thomson, Rex. “The Intertwined Relationship Between Music And Politics.” Live For Live Music. L4LM, 26 February 2016. https://liveforlivemusic.com/features/the -intertwined-relationship-between-music-and-politics/
[3] Bates, Karen G. “A Look Back At Trayvon Martin’s Death, And The Movement It Inspired.” NPR, NPR, 31 July 2018. www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2018/07/31/631897758/ a-look-back-at-trayvon-martins-death-and-the-movement-it-inspired
[4] “P!nk (Ft. Indigo Girls) – Dear Mr. President Lyrics.” Genius. Genius Media Group Inc.,
https://genius.com/P-nk-dear-mr-president-lyrics
[5] “No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.” Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. OSPI, 1 January 2011. http://www.k12.wa.us/esea/NCLB.aspx
[6] “P!nk (Ft. Indigo Girls) – Dear Mr. President Lyrics.” Genius. Genius Media Group Inc.,
https://genius.com/P-nk-dear-mr-president-lyrics
[7] Sullivan, Caroline. “Pink protest.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 28 April 2006.
https://www.theguardian.com/culture/culturevultureblog/2006/apr/28/pink
[8] Jackson, Richard. “War on Terrorism.” Encyclopædia Britannica,  27 Apr. 2017. www.britannica.com/topic/war-on-terrorism
[9] “P!nk (Ft. Indigo Girls) – Dear Mr. President Lyrics.” Genius. Genius Media Group Inc.,
https://genius.com/P-nk-dear-mr-president-lyrics
[10] Rao, Sonia. “‘This Is America’: Breaking down Childish Gambino’s powerful new music video.” The Washington Post. WP Company LLC, 9 May 2018. https://www.washingtonpost .com/news/arts-and-entertainment/wp/2018/05/07/this-is-america-breaking-down-childish -gambinos-powerful-new-music-video/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.c1592d39f3f0
[11] “Childish Gambino – This Is America Lyrics.” Genius. Genius Media Group Inc.,
https://genius.com/Childish-gambino-this-is-america-lyrics
[12]Ibid.
[13]Ibid.
[14] Rao, Sonia. “‘This Is America’: Breaking down Childish Gambino’s powerful new music video.” The Washington Post. WP Company LLC, 9 May 2018. https://www.washingtonpost .com/news/arts-and-entertainment/wp/2018/05/07/this-is-america-breaking-down-childish -gambinos-powerful-new-music-video/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.c1592d39f3f0
[15] Bowsher, Allison. “Celebrities React To Childish Gambino’s Stunning ‘This Is America’ Video.” Much. Bell Media, 7 May 2018. https://www.much.com/childish-gambino-video -this-is-america/
[16] Schwarz, Hunter. “Most political songs don’t go No. 1. ‘This Is America’ just did.” CNN Politics. CNN, 15 May 2018. https://www.cnn.com/2018/05/15/politics/this-is -america-goes-no-1/index.html
[17] “Banned in North Korea, K-pop’s impact still felt across the border.” CBS Morning News, 8 Mar.2018. General OneFile, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/A530410824/ITOF?u=mlin_ c_worstate&sid=ITOF&xid=cad2a62f

Further Reading

Rider, Polly. “10 Influential Songs That Changed the World.” Culture Trip, The Culture Trip LTD., 7 Apr. 2018.

Ross, Danny. “8 Protest Songs Since 2000 That Inspired Change (All The Way To The Bank).” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 31 July 2017.

Trendell, Andrew. “Green Day’s ‘American Idiot’ Races up the Charts in Protest against Donald Trump’s UK Visit.” NME, NME, 10 July 2018.

Worcester State University Fall 2020